this is a special edition of "nightline." the death of robin williams. >> tonight the sudden death of an american original. robin williams, a legend whose range was vast. >> fly, be free. from "mork and mindy" and "pack "patch adams" to "mrs. doubtfire." >> good morning vietnam! >> jimmy: offscreen the struggles with depression and drugs. today found dead in his home in california. what police are saying tonight. on a special edition of "nightline," we celebrate the man who made us laugh and made us cry. as tributes pour in from hollywood to the white house, we remember those unforgettable moments. we also remember robin williams the man. a performer beloved by the
good evening, a brilliant light has gone out in hollywood tonight. robin williams, whose fierce, frenetic comedy captivated us for decades has died at age 63. for all his wild, often improvised humor on stage stage and on screen, behind the scenes he struggled mightily with substance abuse and depression. tonight on a special edition of "nightline" we're going to dedicate our entire show to the life and the death of a true american original. >> nano-nano. >> reporter: from mork -- >> shazbat. >> reporter: to captain hook. to mrs. doubtfire. to his manic make you laugh so hard your ribs hurt comedy specials. >> oh, yeah! >> reporter: robin williams was a legend. but behind the zaniness lurked something darker. drug abuse and depression. williams described himself as a man looking over a cliff.
>> it's not just a fear of falling or -- it's the thing of, you can do this. you can jump. you know. you can fly. and just one. for someone who has no tolerance for it, that's not a possibility. >> reporter: and this morning, according to authorities in california, they got a 911 call reporting that williams was not breathing at his home in tiburon. they're calling it a case of suspected suicide. tonight his representatives saying williams had been battling severe depression of late. abc news has learned williams recently checked himself back into rehab. his wife susan schneider issuing a statement tonight saying, "i lost my husband and my best friend. i am utterly heartbroken." a tidal wave of sadness and sympathy online tonight from fans and fellow celebrities. steve martin tweeting, "i could not be more stunned by the loss of robin williams.
mensch, great talent, acting partner, genuine soul. john travolta, "we loved him and he loved us back. we are all better for having known him. i love you, robin." and so many more tonight. bill cosby, tim allen, kevin spacey, reba mcintyre, and this from ellen degeneres. "i can't believe the news about robin williams. he gave so much to so many people. i'm heartbroken." we spoke by phone tonight with cheryl hinds who guest starred on williams' recent cbs sitcom "the crazy ones." >> it's so hard right now because it's so tragic. but i just feel very thankful and grateful that i got to work with him and i got to -- to be his friend. >> reporter: even president obama weighing tonight. "he was one of a find kind. he arrived in our lives as an alyen but he ended up touching every element of the human spirit."
and in hollywood itself tonight at the iconic comedy club the laugh factory, where williams performed many times, a tribute right there on the marquee. "robin williams, rest in peace, make god laugh." for williams, life began in chicago in 1951. his mother, a former model. his father, an executive at ford. he was surprisingly a quiet child. the first comic impression he did imitating his grandmother to his mom. it was only in high school, in drama class, that he overcame that shyness. he went on to julliard and shortly thereafter, in the late 1970s, he burst into the national consciousness as an oddball alien named mork. >> nano-nano. >> reporter: in the tv show "mork and mindy." >> fly, be free! >> he ad libbed most of his dialogue and wild physical comedy. the show was a huge hit. then came a series of live comedy specials, also big hits.
>> we believe now that chernobyl has been taken care of. if you'd like to follow us into the plant, i'll show you around. >> reporter: and then of course the movies. ♪ >> reporter: there was that unforgettable role in "popeye." williams very quickly moved into dramatic territory. with "the world according to garp" in 1982 about a struggling writer and his romantic entanglements. a. >> a short story. i wrote it for you. >> you wrote it for me. >> many of his most famous roles mixed wit and warmth. "good morning vietnam." >> what is the demilitarized zone? sounds like something from "the "wizard of oz." oh, no, don't go in there. >> reporter: "the dead poet society." >> call me mr. keating or if you're daring captain my captain. >> reporter: "mrs. doubtfire." >> hello!
>> and "good will hunting." >> talk about you, who you are. and i'm fascinated. i'm in. >> reporter: for which he won an oscar for best supporting actor. but all of that on-screen humor masked inner turmoil. in the early 1980s, a problem with cocaine which he claimed to have quit after the fatal overdose of his friend and fellow comedian josh belushi. he spoke to abc's barbara walters about it. >> people also feel in writing about you, reading the interviews thark the death -- that the death of josh belushi was an enormous influence on you, rather than just -- you tell me what it was for you. >> it's only the fact that, here's a guy who is probably one of the toughest, strongest people you could ever meet. and he's taken out. you know? it's -- basically it cleaned up a whole generation of people. because this guy was as strong as anybody you could ever meet. john could run into that wall and get up and do it again. if it took him out, you realize
we are all pretty mortal. >> when you hear of people using drugs, most of the time they use them to get high. >> for me it was a great way of escaping, to cut off from people. it was the only time i could escape. >> reporter: he got sober for many years, it appears. but then he relapsed as he discussed on his comedy tour "weapons of self-destruction." >> alcohol is dangerous for peel people like myself, alcoholics, or ethanol challenged. whatever you want to call it. >> reporter: williams checked himself into rehab in 2006. he talked about it in this interview with abc's diane sawyer. >> so to talk about it as caused by something -- >> it is just there. it waits. lays in wait until the time when you think i'm fine now. i'm okay. then beep, next thing you know it's not okay. you realize, where am i? this is strange, i didn't
realize i was in cleveland. >> how are you? >> i am well. very well. it is a good thing. >> is it a good thing? >> oh, yeah, it's nice. >> two months? >> two months. club medicated. away, quiet time. good, though. i'm back. people say, how do you feel? with my fingers. how is that? don't drink. what are you doing to stay that way? don't drink. >> reporter: relapse caused him his second marriage. he soon started to clean up his act for the sake of his career and most importantly his three children,s a discussed in this interview. >> the one thing that cleaned me up, that was having a kid. that's immediate. i didn't have any rehab or any group -- >> you did it yourself. >> oh, totally. kind of -- i took my mother's advice. vitamins and exercise. when you have a kid you're awake and smell like piss anyway so you don't need drugs. you're like, hey, where's the baby? >> reporter: it is fitting his final posting on social media
was a tribute to the daughter he loved. "happy birthday to ms. zelda rae williams, quarter of a sench century old today but always my baby girl. happy birthday, zelda williams, love you. >> if the 60-year-old robin williams could give the 30-year-old robin williams advice, what would you tell him? >> don't go so fast. how much have you loved doing what you do, loved being with people? if you can answer that question positively, you're doing okay. it's a good life. >> and just before we came on the air tonight, one of the people williams loved very much, his daughter zelda williams, said on twitter, "i love you, i miss you, i'll keep trying to look up." so much pain for his family tonight. we're thinking about them. coming up on this special dig of "nightline," we look at the memorable moments from a
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♪ i turn on the radio >> reporter: as a comedian and actor, robin williams always seemed slightly possessed. >> people think of method actors going, what's he saying? shut up, he feels it. >> reporter: his pace, frantic. his energy super charged. >> look, five yards, let's go! don't you know, listen now. master! i don't think you quite realize what you've got here! why don't you just rule mate while i illuminate the possibilities? >> reporter: the perfect choice to voice the genie from disney's "aladdin." ♪ you ain't never had a friend like me ♪ >> hollywood often struggled to find a bottle anything enough for his genius. >> nano-nano. >> reporter: williams was already in his late 20s by the time abc's "mork and mindy" made him a star.
his character, mork from ork, spun off from one of the later episodes of "happy days," a dream sequence where the good-natured space alien tries to abduct ritchie cunningham only to be foiled by the fonz. >> so do men date women on your planet? >> hard to tell, parts are interchangeable. >> reporter: williams was so out of this world, abc gave him a sitcom of his own. >> mork, will you help me? >> if you insist. mind if i cut in? thank you. >> reporter: a comic genius who had trained at julliard to be a serious actor, as he told johnny carson. >> shakespeare, exciting to wear tights and have people go, i can't see anything. someone give him a dagger! >> reporter: the big screen was better able to capture a personality his size. among his first roles, one of the most iconic cartoon heros.
♪ i'm popeye the sailor >> reporter: williams came into his own when he started playing offbeat heroes with a strong streak of humanity. garp in "the world according to garp." >> my name is t.s. garp. >> what's t.s. stand for? >> terribly sexy. i used to be terribly shy but i changed. >> seize the day. gather while ye may. why does the writer use these lines? >> because he's in a hurry. >> no, beep. thanks for playing anyway. because we are food for worms, lads. because believe it or not, each and every one of us in this room is one day going to stop breathing, turn cold, and die. >> reporter: the loveable teacher in "dead poet society." >> carpe diem, seize the day, boys.
>> reporter: almost a button-down, collar prep school version of his standup style. >> why do i stand up here, anybody? >> to feel taller. >> no. thank you for playing, mr. dalton. >> good morning vietnam! >> reporter: and as the crazy wartime deejay adrian cronauer in "good morning vietnam." his force of personality, allowing him to tackle taboos. >> the buffalo, there's horns everywhere, i think we're going to have a little napalm there, try to cook it down. have a little barbecue. >> reporter: in "the bird cage" a flamboyantly gay father. >> you do fussy, fussy, fussy. >> in "mrs. doubtfire," a cross-dressing mary poppins. >> hello! >> reporter: at the time, williams' own marriage had recently fallen apart. >> i want a divorce. >> reporter: scenes like this must have resonated from his own personal life. it was his portrayal of a south boston psychiatrist that won him his oscar.
>> this girl's [ bleep ] perfect right now. i don't want to ruin that. >> maybe you're perfect right now, maybe you don't want to ruin that. but i think that's a super philosophy. that way you can go through your entire life without having to ever know anybody. >> reporter: in "good will hunt" counseling a complex and hugely talented kid. >> you don't know about real loss. because it only occurs when you love something more than you love yourself. i doubt you've ever dared to love anybody that much. >> reporter: as the wild-eyed hero of a board game brought to life in "jumanji." you'd hardly think of robin williams as presidential, would you? yet he played two commanders in chief. >> 26th president of these united states of america at your service. >> reporter: the rough rider teddy roosevelt in "night at the museum." not much of a stretch.
>> excuse me to you. the hunt. >> reporter: then more recently in "the butler," robin williams played ike. in some ways the ultimate, the iconic commander in chief. williams later told james lipton on "inside the actors studio" that he loved transforming into character. >> you start to do these things where you really start to make a character, someone who isn't yourself, someone combined with makeup, movement, all these different things. you really start to get outside yourself and you're freed to be behind, operating it. that was a really fascinating thing for me. >> reporter: he always brought part of himself too. his humanity. struggling to contain all those characters bursting to get out. >> this is mork signing off. till next week. >> reporter: i'm david wright for "nightline" in hollywood. >> i remember watching that show every week as a 7-year-old. coming up on "nightline," a side of robin williams many of
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never phoney, never the privileged celebrity. just a comedian who helped them escape the cruelty of war or the aftermath of injuries, if just for a moment. he was the comedian who during uso tours would sneak away after his big performance to visit the troops who weren't able to attend. the dog handlers, the dining hall workers, the soldiers keeping guard. it was in kuwait in 2007, entertaining the troops, when robin williams had an unforgettable moment himself. ♪ >> oh-oh! >> reporter: retreat sounded. signaling the lowering of the flag. and everyone turned to face it. williams, not quite knowing what was happening, just paused. but there was that pride, that respect, and then so quickly afterwards, the humor. >> i'm not going to forget that!
i've never had an entire audience just go, forget you! >> reporter: our troops knew he was one of the special ones. a man who truly cared and showed it. i'm martha raddatz for "nightline" in washington. >> tonight the secretary of defense called williams a true friend and supporter of our troops. we want to thank you for watching "nightline" tonight. we'll have much more on the death of robin williams first thing in the morning on "gma" and tomorrow a special edition of "20/20." of course you can get the latest news anytime you want it on abcnews.com. i'm dan harris. good night.